A Coronavirus Blind Spot on Britain’s Right

People wearing protective face masks make their way through Waterloo Station during the morning rush hour in London, England, September 23, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
The communitarian-curious among U.K. conservatives are at risk of losing their connection with the public.

London — Christmas was wonderful. After spending much of the year away, I was reunited with my family and treated to my father’s delicious cooking. Santa was generous, too. I discovered a book hidden in my sack of treats titled “Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class” by Paul Embery, a trade unionist and columnist hailing from Dagenham, East London.

It was an interesting, engaging read, full of pages tearing into the “activists of liberal wokedom” and taking aim at the politicians, journalists, and academics who have trodden over working people in favor of the Left’s new religions of multiculturalism, political intolerance, and globalization at all costs. It offers a full-throated defense of Britain’s working class, a group that Embery usefully defines in the opening pages:

The stratum of society whose members often do the toughest and most grinding jobs (consisting, for example, of physical labour or work in blue-collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline public services); those whose wages and social status are generally at the lower end of the scale; those who own little to no property or wealth, beyond perhaps their own home and some modest savings; those who are likely to have little authority or control in their workplace; those who live in the grittier parts of Britain, particularly post-industrial, small-town or coastal communities and those districts of our citie that haven’t yet succumbed to gentrification or been colonised by the professional classes; those who are unemployed or more likely to be in receipt of benefits; and so on.

This is a broad and generally agreeable definition. But having read this account of a powerless and poor echelon of British society, I was rather shocked when I hopped on Embery’s Twitter account to discover that he had recently been sharing COVID-skeptic statistics. Embery tweeted: “The number of Covid-related deaths in England involving individuals under the age of 60 and free from a pre-existing condition is 377. This is for the entire period of the pandemic.” For what it’s worth, Embery claimed he cited this statistic in favor of what he calls “a more focused approach” to coronavirus mitigation in which “the full resources of the state and civil society should be given over to protecting the genuinely vulnerable — no matter the financial cost — while the healthy part of the population are granted greater freedoms to live their lives.”

Ignoring his politics for a moment, the implied message behind Embery’s tweet is rather sinister. It suggests that, because so few people who are young and healthy have died as a consequence of the virus, we should reduce our stringency and let it tear through the population, because it probably won’t be that bad. Except even with restrictions, it has been very bad indeed. Some 65,000 people in England and Wales aged 65 or above have died with the virus, as have over 7,000 people of working age.

While not regularly forthcoming on coronavirus-related issues, Embery outed himself as a skeptic by signing and sharing a popular petition rather pompously titled “The Great Barrington Declaration,” which opposed blanket lockdowns and called for “a more targeted approach.” The argument, in brief: Most of us won’t be killed by the virus, so we should carry on as normal while all the vulnerable and old people should be self-isolating at home.

Embery’s message is even more bizarre when considered within the context of his politics. If I believed that working-class people were a downtrodden and ignored portion of society, all too often cast aside in favor of the dark forces of globalization and cash, I would be champing at the bit to point out how lockdown skeptics were prioritizing the material health of economy — with all its shareholders, offshore bank accounts, and wealth funds — over the physical health of its most lowly and vital workers.

But for some reason, in this great once-in-a-lifetime moment of history, many communitarian commentators such as Embery have instead decided to reject what strikes me as the most obvious conclusion those of their philosophical ilk should take: that working people, being more vulnerable than most, should be offered full protection from the virus’s attack on both health and wealth. They should not, for example, be told to go back to work or risk losing their jobs, as was mooted in Britain between the first and second waves of COVID-19.

Communitarians often call for greater intergenerational solidarity, and — like many conservatives — will speak of the sacred connection between the living and the dead, the past and the future. Telling everyone over 65 to stay indoors while younger, healthier people enjoy the fruits of freedom, possibly mutating the virus beyond vaccination control, does not strike me as a message of great community spirit. It’s also impossible in almost all cases to effectively shield the vulnerable away from the virus.

I am focusing on Embery because he is a notable example, but the curse of poorly reasoned coronavirus takes has afflicted many on the British right. All too often, I see a blue-check radio host embark on an aggressive tirade on the tyranny of anti-virus restrictions and how the average age of death isn’t actually that high, only for someone equally popular and of a similar political disposition to join and reply, “You know, I’m something of a communitarian myself.” Groupthink is often dangerous, but especially here.

Reassuringly, #NotAllCommunitarians have been caught up in this baffling mess, and many — especially those who are lucky enough to have benefited from Catholic social teaching — have been quick to remind others that the sanctity of life does not dissipate with every year past retirement age.

The ideological confusion caused by the shock of the coronavirus has left us in the bizarre scenario where the generally more authoritarian nationalist conservatives within rightish bubbles are hailing individualistic responses — arguing that people should do what they want and those who are vulnerable should simply self-isolate — whereas writers from the typically more pro-freedom circles on the neoliberal right have called for COVID-19 to be treated like a collective-action problem, where only an all-or-nothing response will do.

How have we ended up in a position where free-marketeers are arguing for us to put the economy in the freezer for a few months while communitarian conservatives are clinging to ancient English liberties, or defending a woman who refused to close her hair salon on the basis of Magna Carta?

After ginormous victories in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election, where common-sense conservative politics swept across former left-leaning bastions, the communitarian-curious section of Britain’s Right might be shedding its nascent connection with the public. That would be a real shame. But polling has shown the average Briton to be in favor of every tough measure taken to combat COVID-19.

It will be a tough pill for many of them to swallow, but if communitarians want to escape their coronavirus blind spot, they will have to consider why the public and the pro-lockdown neoliberals have fallen on the same side during this pandemic. If these communitarians don’t reckon honestly with this, they will risk becoming the one thing all communitarians hate: out of touch with ordinary people.